i.e. another way climate change is screwing with our health
Remember how bad the wildfires in the western United States were this year? Maybe you're worried that summer is never going to be the same with the constant air quality warnings? If you're like most people, you're probably a little concerned. And rightfully so! For instance, even if you weren't in California during the wildfires this year, you might have still felt the effects of the wildfires. While it doesn't seem the most direct, wildfires that occur far away still affect the environment you are living in. Climate change is playing a huge role in the number of wildfires and the length of the wildfire season that we're seeing and will be seeing - here's why.
Here's how climate change affects wildfires
In areas that traditionally are warmer, climate change is turning up the heat. There are basically three ingredients that are needed to make a wildfire: fuel, hot wind and some sort of ignition to start the wildfire. Scientists know for sure that climate change affects two of the three ingredients (fuel and hot wind). The increasing temperatures that climate change is bringing makes for hotter weather which then, in turn, dries out more of the vegetation in an area, making it the perfect fuel for a fire (1). The increasing temperatures also ensure that the wind blowing in these areas are hot and dry, the perfect type of wind for spreading a wildfire. In some areas, an earlier snowmelt is also resulting in drier summers – which I'm sure you get it by now – is pretty bad news!
Wildfire and health? Here's the stitch!
Wildfires, as you can probably guess, are not good for you! Wildfires pollute the air with toxic gases, hydrocarbons and oxygenated organics (2). The pollution created, especially if they are small particles (which we call PM 2.5), can travel deep inside your lungs and cause oxidative stress which damages the lungs (2). Oxidative stress is odd to think about, but basically, it's like your cells being overwhelmed. Studies have also shown that wildfires have a direct effect on respiratory diseases; the more wildfires there are, the more people will experience respiratory diseases or a worsening of symptoms (think things like difficulty breathing and more coughing) (2). These situations are even worse for people who already have difficulties, like those living with asthma. And while it is most definitely worse for those who are close to the fires, as we saw with the most recent 2018 wildfires, smoke can spread far and wide. That means that respiratory effects can still be a worry for those living hundreds or even thousands of miles away (8). NASA suggests watching for orange or red sunsets which could be a sign that there is smoke in the atmosphere (8).
For those who have lived near wildfires, mental health is often also affected. Anxiety, fear, and grief are common emotions that are felt during and in the aftermath of wildfires (2). This is partially due to the unknowns of the fire, but also has to do with the isolation felt from being trapped inside because of air quality considerations and not being able to go about a normal daily routine. This is all on top of the direct worry of how close the fire may be to their home. No matter how you slice it, wildfires definitely take both your physical and mental health for a wild ride!
What the future of wildfires will look like for the United States
Basically, wildfires are going to have both direct and indirect effects on our lives. Places that generally are at risk for wildfires (a.k.a. Northern California and the PNW more generally) are going to experience more wildfires, whereas areas that traditionally don't see a lot of wildfires won't really see a spike in wildfires (3). However, wildfires can still increase overall air pollution and release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making climate change (and all the other effects associated with climate change) worse (3). Wildfires also impact drinking water; they can heat up the soil and cause it to release more carbon and nitrogen-containing compounds which then react with the disinfectants used to purify water (4). This creates chemicals that are not good for you! Bottom line: even if you don't live in areas that will be directly affected by an increase in wildfires, there are still indirect effects that can impact your safety and health!
You might want to know who's at risk!
Elderly individuals are at higher risk for two reasons – they have a decreased ability to process inhaled chemicals and they have a higher baseline prevalence of cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Some studies have also indicated that females have a harder time with wildfires because they usually have smaller and more reactive airways (6). This is true for children under the age of 4 as well, so, you want to make sure your little ones are protected from air pollution (6)!
For those of you who love exercising outside, we hate to be the bearer of bad news, but exercising outside during periods of bad air quality is not smart! On these days, you end up breathing in more air pollution than if you were working out indoors. This is because your lungs work harder during exercise, and consequently, take in more pollutants (2). This is one of the only cases where exercising might actually be bad for you!
Some quick tips on how to decrease exposure to pollutants
- Invest in some quality masks. Regular masks that you buy at the drugstore won't protect you from wildfire pollutants. You'll want to buy N95 or N100 masks, which filter out fine particles, but not hazardous gases (7). Take note though, these masks are not meant for small children since they don't create a proper seal on tiny faces!
- Stay indoors during wildfires. Like we mentioned before, going outside during days with air quality alerts harms you more than it helps you! Check the air quality, even if you're not by where the fires are located. Because of how powerful winds are, wildfire smoke from California has made its way across the country to New York before (5)!
- Look into an air filter. While these babies cost a lot more than an air mask, they can filter out air pollution for a whole room and might be a good investment if you have small children.
- Do what you can, when you can, to help slow down climate change, like divesting from oil and gas companies and grocery shopping with climate change in mind.